One day, having returned from a charity project in the Sahara desert, I was exhausted from the heat, barely recovered from a stomach bug, and found myself seriously appreciating New York’s rain.
The desert trip made me realize how lucky I am in my life, and it inspired me to want to do something more to “give back,” to use a popular phrase.
Whilst talking to my friend Victor, I mentioned how I thought that all those charity parties in New York may do good work, but how it doesn’t feel rewarding or challenging just to show up to a black-tie event. I quoted my stepmother to him: “If you didn’t buy the dress to go to the charity, and put that money instead towards the cause, the charity would be fine”.
He argued back and told me that such events are important because they get attention from the press, highlighting causes we would otherwise be ignorant about, and persuaded me to go with him to an event held for the Naked Heart foundation, which builds playgrounds for children in Russia.
While at the Naked Heart Foundation event, I ran into my friend Robin Leacock, and mentioned my desert trip. She told me she had a great idea for a film – and would I like to help?
And so while I had some understanding of giving I never really learnt what it could mean, until I ended up co-producing a new documentary – “A Passion for Giving” – directed by Robin Melanie Leacock for cinematic release.
We started the very next day after our meeting. I sat with Robin and we drew up wish-lists of who would be a good subject for an inspirational interview. We started emailing and writing letters, and in all honesty hardly any were answered, or else they were blocked by agents and PR people, saying xyz wouldn’t have the time in his or her schedule to be interviewed…
Robin realized we had to rethink our plan. The only way forward was hijack-style.
In other words, we had find out where these people would be on a given day or occasion, and interview them right then and there. We felt like detectives – finding out when a certain person would be where, and figuring out how we could get there to meet them. Ironically, there were many of those black tie events I had complained about to my friend Victor on our list.
This was guerrilla-style filmmaking. It was an uphill struggle from day one.
Yet on a lighter note, in the course of making this film last year, I met some truly exceptional people, who taught me many lessons; lessons which will hopefully translate well onto the screen.
Some of the people I met included Eve Branson (Richard’s mother), who has started her own charity to help disadvantaged kids in Morocco, and John Sykes, who set up the VH1 Save the Music foundation – providing instruments to restore music education in America’s schools. Saw that the most successful philanthropists do it well because they are honest people.
I learnt that if you have the opportunity to do good, you should follow your heart and help in an area that means something to you:
US rapper Darryl McDaniels (of hip hop group Run DMC), who was orphaned at a young age, hosts annual Thanksgiving dinners for orphans as he remembers the loneliness he felt as a child around that time. Russian model Natalia Vodianova, who grew up in poverty, now runs a charity that builds children’s playgrounds in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
And my own father, Jonathan (Former UK Treasury minister), informed by his prison experience, now works to give hope to those behind bars. He’s involved with a Charity called Angel Tree that helps prisoners keep in touch with their families by giving Christmas presents to their children. He is also chairman of the Centre for Social Justice’s Policy Study Group on Prison Reform, which hopes to promote better conditions and education opportunities for prisoners. Finally, he is a director of Prison Fellowship International (aimed at caring for ex-offenders)– and plans to start up a system which gives ex-offenders a mentor to help them get back into the working world.
Filming at the Clinton foundation’s Global Initiative (we had to walk for miles in the rain carrying heavy equipment to get there), we met Iqbal Surve, who grew up under-privileged in South Africa, then became a doctor – setting up the emergency services group that looked after victims of torture, and treating prisoners on infamous Robben Island. He has become an incredibly rich man, heading up a company (Sekunjalo Investment Group) with an annual turnover of nearly £350 million, but because he has understood suffering from an early age, philanthropy has always been close to his heart. “Giving is the best way to create a shared humanity,” he says.
Many rich and successful people have come to the conclusion, like Surve, that investing money for the sake of accumulation and profit is not enough. “Giving” should involve making the world a better place, and those who do it find that helping others to achieve in life is not only of benefit to those on the receiving end but also hugely inspiring for the giver.
But be warned, the joy of giving is as intangible as most other forms of ‘happiness’. The more you seek it, the more likely it is to elude you. Giving in order to make yourself feel better can backfire on you if it makes the recipients feel patronized rather than strengthened – they will have every right to resent you for highlighting what you can do and they cannot. If you are hoping to “buy” affection or approval, as I tried to do recently with a man I was really keen on, you will engage in “selfish” generosity.
The real meaning of giving lies in not wanting or expecting anything in return.
I hope you will enjoy “A Passion for Giving” as much as I enjoyed making it, and take something away in the process too.
For more upcoming information on the film, please keep an eye on Victoria’s MySpace page.